“Pessimism, Hopelessness & Doom” – Traveling the Virginia Extremes with August Wallmeyer



August Wallmeyer paints a distressing picture of rural Virginia in the 21st century.  His little book, The Extremes of Virginia, which highlights the realities and common challenges of three regions of the Commonwealth—Southwest, Southside, and the Eastern Shore—gets your attention quickly.  You start to see why he calls the regions “the Extremes,” and it isn’t just because they form a crescent on the periphery of the state.  A few examples:

“People in the Extremes areas earn about two-thirds of what Virginians statewide do. People here are older and much poorer. The average poverty rate among the Extremes is 67 percent higher than Virginia’s. In Virginia in 2014, it was 11.8 percent. In the Extremes, 19.7 percent.”

“Suicide rates in some pockets of the Extremes are double, some more than triple the statewide average. Overall, the average rate at which people in the Extremes commit suicide is 18.8 percent higher.”

“The rate of fatal prescription opioid drug overdoses in the Extremes is 56 percent higher than Virginia.”

Something is going on in the Extremes, and these indicators suggest that it isn’t good.  In fact, Wallmeyer says, “There is a pervasive sense of pessimism, hopelessness and doom in the Extremes.”

Well, that doesn’t sound good.

51LveuFwchL.jpgTo be sure, Wallmeyer, a former news writer, trade association executive and long-time observer of the General Assembly in Richmond, appreciates the beauty and lifestyle of these areas.  He is sympathetic to the psychic and spiritual effects of a declining and aging population, lost influence in state decision-making, and the collapse of old economic models.  And he understands that governmental policies are often contradictory and unhelpful.

But he’s not really sure what to do about it.  Along the course of his Extreme journey, he highlights some pockets of progress and people who are trying to make changes.  The high-tech rocket launch facility on the Eastern Shore is one of those bright lights.  The general tenor of the book, however, is that the problems are so engrained and severe that it will take outsiders to set things straight.

The general tenor of the book, however, is that the problems are so engrained and severe that it will take outsiders to set things straight.

After noting the aversion most residents of the Extremes have to being told what to do by people from outside the region, Wallmeyer’s most prominent policy recommendation is to bring in the experts who have been involved in development work around the globe.  “I suggest we use a small fraction of our budget and spend it on some highly qualified outside help with particular expertise in the kinds of situations and problems faced in the Extremes.”  He then outlines the qualifications of these outside aides in a way that seems hopelessly unrealistic: “The task of the consultants must be completely nonpartisan, completely indifferent to election realities or predictions, absolutely neutral in every respect.”

I appreciate Wallmeyer’s effort here.  He has collected some very useful statistics and has offered a clear-eyed portrait of the land I know.  But the reporting is spotty and relies too much on the legislative and bureaucratic world that he seems to know so well.

A crisis of “pessimism, hopelessness and doom” is not going to be solved by more tinkering with the system.

A crisis of “pessimism, hopelessness and doom” is not going to be solved by more tinkering with the system.  It’s going to require a revival of community, a proliferation of relationships and networks of local connection, and a renewed narrative that restores purpose and meaning to the land and its people.  It is, dare I say it, a spiritual problem that will require the tools of the heart and soul.

The Extremes of Virginia 

by August Wallmeyer

Dementi Milestone Publishing, 2016

126 pages

You are the one and only threshold

hisu-lee-26812“If we become addicted to the external, our interiority will haunt us.  We will become hungry with a hunger no image, person, or deed can still.  To be wholesome, we must remain truthful to our vulnerable complexity.  In order to keep our balance, we need to hold the interior and exterior, visible and invisible, known and unknown, temporal and eternal, ancient and new, together.  No one can undertake this task for you.  You are the one and only threshold of an inner world.”

–John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Ghosts and Land – My interview with Alix Hawley continues – part 2 of 2

In the first part of my interview with author Alix Hawley, we talked Daniel Boone, pop culture, and the challenges of writing your way into the mind of a legend.  In this post, my interview with the author of All True Not a Lie in It concludes…
You handle the Shawnee culture with a great deal of respect, helping bring it alive so that we glimpse a culture that was still vital in this period.  In fact, the second half of the book takes place almost entirely among the Shawnee.  How did you come to this structure for the book?

An image of Boone’s adoption by the Shawnee

Writing this book took many drafts and a lot of muddling, but I always pictured it in two halves, with the murder of Daniel’s son James as the break between them. The Shawnee half was more difficult, partly because there are a lot of captivity narratives from that time and afterwards, there are virtually no first-person accounts from the Indigenous side. So I was coming at the culture as a white writer, through white settler accounts, a problem of which I was very aware. I had to invent personalities based on slight hints (Black Fish being seen as a commanding speaker, for instance). But it began to take its own shape. The sense of family really helped here; Daniel’s adoption gave me a mirror, a foil, for his white family in part one. It’s the foundation in both sections.

Nothing in this book went the way I expected it to, and I think it’s one of the great strengths of the book.  You could have used a more traditional heroic narrative, but you gave Boone an element of tragedy.  Is this more a story of disillusionment or perhaps reorientation of perspective?
Most of the accounts even since he was alive made him into a capital-H hero. I suppose you could look at him alternatively as the classical tragic hero, a powerful man whose flaws bring him down, but instead, I wanted to know what it felt like to be *seen* as that hero. What does that do to you as a human? That’s the perspective I’m always interested in.
The land plays an important role in this book, especially when Boone initially goes into Kentucky and thinks it is heaven.  How did you approach writing about the land?
jordan-whitt-53061With a little trepidation, given that I never made it to Kentucky! (I was too pregnant to get travel insurance when I was initially researching.) I loved looking at paintings and photographs, though. In a way, I think not seeing the real place helped. It couldn’t be the same as it was in the eighteenth century, of course. That let me have my own vision (and I apologize if I have a few tree varieties wrong . . . I did look them up!). And the fact that the historical record has so many gaps and differing versions gave me the freedom to do that.
I’m reminded that my copy-editor informed me there were no magpies in eastern North America at that time, but I fought to keep a reference to one, as it seemed an important image. It’s easy in fiction, historical fiction especially, to get pinned down in seeking extreme accuracy, but if your own drive and story-shaping aren’t present, the book has no engine.
Ghosts play a big role in this story.  Boone is haunted by his brother and his son.  The Shawnee culture struggles to overcome the loss of sons through the adoption of Boone and his men.  Are the ghosts empowering or debilitating or something else?
Daniel’s ghosts are a pull on him, sometimes physically, but they’re also reminders of his past and the fact that he exists at all. And though they bring enormous guilt, he doesn’t want to let go; they form his private story, apart from the tales his friends and others are always telling about him. The Shawnee adoption makes him into the ghost of a lost son, which is a kind of empowerment for both sides. I think I also just like ghost stories.
The relationship between Boone and Rebecca is both tender and distant.  How did you try to get inside a relationship that was marked by so much separation and loss?
I had to imagine myself into that situation, which was really hard. Daniel and Rebecca react differently to their loss, and I could see both sides–the desire to forget and carry on, and the opposite desire to never let the lost person go.
Of course we are seeing her through his eyes, given the first-person narration. I tried to portray her as a realistic person, with all the attendant frustrations and mixed feelings, when she’s present, and to make her into part of Daniel’s dreaming tendencies when he’s not with her. There’s more about their relationship in the sequel, which I’m working on now. Rebecca’s voice comes out there too.

Alix Hawley

I think of your book as adding a lot of texture back to an old, worn bit of Americana.  What is the virtue of complicating old stories or re-wilding old landscapes for contemporary people?

I hope it’s a reminder that life is complicated. Like landscape, stories aren’t static. There’s always another way in.

How to write with words you use all the dang time – a review of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir

51YojI74IoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_“At the nadir of my confidence as a writer, I despaired of ever finishing Lit. I considered selling my apartment to give the advance money back. Then a Jesuit pal asked me, quite simply, What would you write if you weren’t afraid? I honestly didn’t know at first. But I knew finding the answer would unlock the writing for me.”

When I heard Mary Karr tell this story at a writing festival in 2008 it marked a turning point for me.  I left the session where she said this, went straight out to sit under a tree on the Calvin College campus, and wrote that question on a page of my journal – What would you write if your weren’t afraid?  I’m not ashamed to say that it was God’s voice that I was transcribing on those pages for the next two hours.  It’s still the most important question I’ve ever been asked.

Now Mary Karr has put the question to paper herself in 2015’s The Art of Memoir to help other writers hoping to find a more honest, authentic voice.  Critics have accused Karr of just slapping together notes from her MFA classes at Syracuse to produce this book, but I found it to be a very useful deep dive into the craft of writing and the process of coming to know oneself.  Plus, she’s one of the funniest writers I know, so the ride was great.

Karr was one of the progenitors of the modern memoir trend with her 1995 book, The Liar’s Club.  She followed that one up with two more memoirs — Cherry and Lit.  Each of them is rich with detail and heart, chronicling her journey from a hard-scrabble childhood in an East Texas oil town with a artistic but unbalanced mother and a somewhat distant father to her unlikely emergence from alcoholism to Roman Catholicism.  Every one was a gem.

Those books made memoir-writing look easy, almost too easy.  But this book reveals the really difficult work that produced them.  Karr pushes for a voice that is unconcerned for appearances and willing to go into the midst of tragedy.  “Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened,” she says, “there’s suffering involved.”


Mary Karr

Karr also helped me understand why some memoirs just don’t work.  “A memoirist must cop to it all, which means routing out the natural ways you try to masquerade as somebody else—nicer, smarter, faster, funnier. All the good lines can’t be the memoirist’s.”  Take note, Bill Clinton!  “For the vast majority of writers, we’re better off with simpler vocabulary—the shorter, often monosyllabic ”  OK.  That one’s for me.

Karr has convinced me that there are treasures to be mined in our stories, (not that I needed much convincing).  “I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking [of a memory] to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk,” she says, “how did so much fit into such a small space?” Lately, I’ve been using a memoir exercise as a way to feel my into other writing.  It’s a time-consuming, emotionally-exhausting exercise.  But rich.

I highly recommend this one.  It’s practical, deep, and very easy to read.  And I’m thanking Mary once again for opening the door to more.

Alex talks to Alix – an interview with author Alix Hawley – part 1 of 2

51w4-h0whUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It (recently reviewed here), a creative re-visiting of the pioneer and American cultural touchstone Daniel Boone.  Hawley teaches at Okanagan College in Kelowna, British Columbia and this debut novel has won her the Amazon.ca First Novel Award along with a lot of acclaim.  Always interested in folks who are reimagining the American landscape and the people who are formed by it, I asked her for an interview and I didn’t even mention Fess Parker once.  (At least not directly…)
What sparked your interest in Daniel Boone as a subject for fiction?  Hasn’t he been picked over enough by pop culture?
I talk in the preface about suddenly remembering a 1985 National Geographic drawing of Daniel by Jack Unruh. It struck me so hard that I started looking into the history, knowing little. I saw then there hadn’t been many books about Daniel Boone for quite a while, aside from biographies.
If people know his name now, it’s often from the 1960s TV show, which I never saw (and haven’t had the heart to watch on YouTube). And many people don’t know the name at all. So I felt I had a clear field, in a way, to take a fresh look at a person whose life was totally outside my own experience and literary background. As wacky as it may sound, I feel the story chose me.
Portrait_of_Daniel_Boone_by_Chester_Harding_1820Your Boone is a dreamer who gets carried away with the idea of Kentucky as Heaven.  Did he become that way through the course of discovering the character or are there things you found in doing research that opened up that side of him?
That’s my version of Boone talking. His religious life became an important background to the novel, though, as I did the research. He grew up Quaker, which I hadn’t known, although his family weren’t particularly good Quakers (no spoilers!). Biographers suggest he retained some spiritual beliefs all his life, though he never joined another church. In my book, Kentucky represents a fresh world for him in many ways, a blank slate. But slates are never truly blank.
The Daniel Boone you conjure is a bit of a trickster, it seems to me.  Especially in the scenes in the second half, he is playful and needles Chief Black Fish in a way that seems daring.  This really opens the door to building something of a relationship between them.  How do you see their relationship working?

Alix Hawley

I think he enjoys being tricksy and playful, and the record shows a fondness and even love between the two of them, as unlikely as it was in that place and time. Their similarities interested me–they were close in age, both “big men” among their communities, trying to keep peace and make things work. The father-son connection also pulled me in. What’s it like to create that kind of bond to replace ones you’ve lost?

Re-wilding the Land – a Review of Alix Hawley’s All True Not a Lie in It


jordan-whitt-53061All True Not a Lie in It.  Ha!  Daniel Boone is one of the most picked-over commodities in pioneer pop culture, (though admittedly he hasn’t had a major spike in interest since Fess Parker’s TV Boone had ‘60s kids sporting coon-skin caps).  If there’s a truth left below the varnish of 250 years of mythologizing, I’m not sure we’d be able to tell.  Nevertheless, Alix Hawley, in her award-winning debut book, gives us a Boone that feels like a fully human figure, full of dreams and regrets and certainly someone who carries a spark of a larger truth.

51w4-h0whUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_The pieces of the historical Boone are here.  There’s young Daniel and his family chafing against the strictures of a Quaker community in Pennsylvania.  There’s an older Daniel moving to North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley and reluctantly taking up farming.  Boone the soldier in the French and Indian War.  Boone the family man.  But this Boone blossoms when he takes off for Kentucky with a small group of companions and calls it  heaven – despite being captured by Shawnee, twice robbed of the pelts he collects during long seasons of hunting, and spending more than a year wandering.  “I want to believe that this is Heaven now just here,” Boone the narrator says.  “Is there any great wrong in wanting Heaven now?” (118)

When he finally does return home he discovers a new child in the cradle, something that only adds to the complications of reestablishing a relationship with his wife, Rebecca.  Eventually they work their way back to tenderness, but Boone is no more of a farmer than he ever was, and soon the whole family is heading back to the Cumberland Gap to blaze the trail for an expansion of settled Virginia.  The high hopes of the first part of the book come crashing down when the party is trapped in a valley and some, including Boone’s son, come to a bloody and tortured end at the hands of Cherokee.

If Hawley’s book were a standard pioneer tale, the second half would relate Boone’s success in overcoming, conquering the wilderness, and settling the land.  There’s plenty of that to tell in the historical record, but nothing in All True goes the way one would expect.  The intoxicated dreamer with a musket, smitten with the happy hunting grounds of Kentucky, is replaced by a much softer Boone in the second half – one who is haunted by the ghosts of a lost son and brother and who is mocked and scorned by the men he has led when they are taken into a long captivity by the Shawnee.

There’s plenty of that to tell in the historical record, but nothing in All True goes the way one would expect.

Boone_CumberlandHawley does a deep dive into the Shawnee culture and opens the possibility for some real relationships between the colonial and indigenous characters, particularly between Boone and Chief Black Fish, who adopts Daniel as the replacement for a lost son.  Hawley’s Boone has a light spirit that is alternately puckish and pugnacious.  He earns a level of respect within the tribe and the book ends only as change is coming again as the power dynamics shift on the frontier.

Meanwhile, Boone’s legend is growing.  There is a sense that another figure is living in the stories now being told about him back East and in London.  “Everyone knows my story,” Boone reflects at one point.  “Everyone but me, as I think.”  Boone has been undone in the second half, his Kentucky Heaven now a place of ghosts and broken dreams.  “I feel myself a vacant house.  I have nothing.” (303).

Hawley has done a miraculous thing in this well-written book.  She has re-wilded the early colonial frontier and populated it with visionaries, mercenaries, and troubled souls.  She has also, through the extended scenes in the Shawnee camps, taken stock of the native culture that was receding yet still vital.  In that, the book resembles Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel The Son, which worked the same magic for the Texas frontier by including an extended section featuring a Comanche capture.

Hawley has done a miraculous thing in this well-written book.  She has re-wilded the early colonial frontier and populated it with visionaries, mercenaries, and troubled souls.

This is not an easy romanticism that Hawley gives us, but it is a romanticism.  There is something pulsing and singing through this land that inhabits these characters.  Larger forces and deadly vices are conspiring to disenchant the land, though, and it’s not clear if Boone and the others will be heroes or villains in the end.  The Boone that Hawley creates is certainly not sure.  Part One of his story is called “When I am Good” and Part Two is “When I am Not.”  Is his narrative that easy?  I’d be tempted to say ‘no’ but then again, this is all true.  Not a lie in it.

All True Not a Lie in It: A Novel

By Alix Hawley

Harper Collins, 2016

372 pages

Humor & Theology at the Chemo Pump – A Review of Cancer is Funny

My review of Jason Micheli’s Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo [Fortress Press, 2016] is now up on the great Englewood Review of Books.  Full disclosure: Jason is one of the pastors I work with in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and I was on one of his recent podcasts of Crackers & Grape Juice – a real labor of love by pastors who love theology. Jason also maintains the Tamed Cynic blog.

But on to the review:

Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know.  The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny.  Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix)  This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.  Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive.  Plus, too, he’s funny.

417jI57h4TLI can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press.  Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting.  Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men).  A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.

This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.

A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer.  She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding itjason-briscoe-223974—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework.  In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated.  “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)

“The assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power…Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”

In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book.  Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines.  (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value.  When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.

The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here.  He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch.  The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.

Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body.  I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional.  But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.


Jason Micheli

Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era.  In Karr’s The Art of  Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice.  “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.”  And this means digging down beneath the pretty.

Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book.  But he values the rawness he has experienced.  His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)

This is a searing book.  The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain.  But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto.  Not ‘ha ha’ joy.  But life for sure.  It’s a journey worth taking with him.

Keeping the Midwest Weird: My interview with Mark Athitakis continues – part 2

i-m-priscilla-165377In my last interview blog post with the writer Mark Athitakis, “Why we we’ve got to get Willa out of the cornfield”, we talked about the plural landscape of the Midwest, something he covered in his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.  Today we talk about seeing the world for what it is, the state of religious literary fiction, and “keeping the Midwest weird.”

I like how you bring out, in the chapter on bad places, how Jane Smiley and Gillian Flynn are looking at the landscape and, kind of, flipping the old bottle on its head, and saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of ugly out here.  There are some really ugly places.”

Or, it can be. Those Gillian Flynn books are fascinating to me, because I think she writes in a very gritty way about how rough those places are and how much those regions kind of took it in the teeth, especially during the great recession.  But her characters have this very strong urge to defend the Missouri Bootheel.  It’s like, “Don’t tell me what my place is.  This is where I grew up.  This is my home.  Don’t mock it.  Don’t make fun of it.  Don’t call us dumb hicks, or southerners, or hillbillies, or that sort of thing.”  She doesn’t get credit for this because I think she’s treated more as just a thriller author.  But she captures that sense of loving an unlovable place better than a lot of other writers out there.


Let me ask you about your religious literature section.  You talk about Marilynne Robinson, and then, at one point, you talk about how she’s kind of left alone “as the standard bearer of the religious literary novel, prompting some critics…to wonder whether it might be revived again.” (32) I guess the implication there is that it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of hope for that.


Marilynne Robinson at the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing, Calvin College – photo by Christian Scott Heinen Bell

I was thinking more explicitly about Paul Elie, who wrote a book, I think coming on ten years ago now, about the great heyday of Catholic writers, talking about Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton.  There was kind of this period where so much of what we’re talking about in terms of social issues and issues of identity could be filtered through what Catholic writers were doing and we don’t have an explicit religious literary culture like that anymore.  In terms of Marilynne Robinson, there’s room for one, and we’ve picked her.  If you’ve got to pick one, I think she is a remarkable thinker about religion.  What struck me as funny in going through how she’s been approached critically, though, was that so much–and I’ll cop to being guilty to this as well, I wrote a review of Home for the Sun Times that kind of played into this–is that so much of what people publicly admire about Marilynne Robinson is her writing.  She is an exquisite maker of sentences, and she obviously writes with a real sensitivity about people and their struggle.  And she wrote beautifully about Iowa.  James Woods celebrated that when he re-elevated her, reviewing Gilead in 2004 in The New York Times Book Review.

But all this kind of comes at the expense of the tough stuff that’s in these books.  I mean, it’s talking about interracial relationships and how this estranged families.  It’s about church burnings.  It’s about the role that Iowa had played during the Civil War.  And prostitution.  There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in Marilynne Robinson’s novels that gets very soft-pedaled in public discussions that we have about them.  So, there’s still this reflex of trying to implant this: “Well, it’s an Iowan, she’s writing about religion, so these must be very soft, church-y books.”  But you know, they’re not really.

Lila, the last one in the trilogy, is about a young girl who is orphaned, left to live among prostitutes, left to fend for herself in the wilderness, and eventually becomes part of this church community.  But so much about that book is about skepticism of religion.  How can I trust this faith that you are telling me about, this religion that you are telling me about, when everything I’ve known in my entire life has existed to degrade me?

Then you go from that to read reviews that talk about: “Nobody writes better about Midwestern values than Marilynne Robinson.”  Wait, what?  That’s not exactly where she’s coming from.

So, of course, I come out of a different region.  And the literature that has formed me has been more Southern Gothic literature—Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and people like that.  When you talk about “keeping the Midwest weird,” do you see any connections between the kind of things that people like, maybe, Thomas Disch are doing? Is that a similar way of trying to shock us into seeing something different about the region?

One point I tried to make in that particular chapter is that the Midwest, as much as any other place, has sparked experimental writing of its own.  Obviously, the Iowa Writers Workshop is there.  You have writers like Robert Cooper, who is one of the experimentalists who wrote a lot about the Midwestern region, writers like William H. Gass, who writes in this beautifully elegant, smart metaphors, but also this very angry, infuriated tone.


Mark Athitakis

Really what I was trying to get at there is this idea, again, that there’s not one particular specific kind of Midwestern writing, but that there was maybe a little bit more risk-taking amongst writers in the region than it’s perhaps given credit for.  And also, someone like Leon Forrest, a longtime Chicagoan, who I write about in the last chapter, was a pioneering African-American experimental writer coming out of the, roughly, second half of the 20th century. Toni Morrison, who is treated now so much as practically a statue of contemporary American fiction, was a great experimentalist earlier in her career, and she was Leon Forrest’s editor.  So, my goal there was to point out that there’s a through line of writers who, contrary to popular belief, were taking real chances and risks with language.

Rural is Plural

This article originally appeared in the great Topology magazine.



We were in danger of becoming a caricature.  When a parent stood up at a local school board meeting and expressed her dismay at a word being used in two books in the school library, blogposts and news stories from New York to Singapore decried the benighted censorship emanating from our Virginia backwater county.  Because the books were Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But the word was ‘nigger.’

219 times in Huck Finn.  48 times in Mockingbird.  That’s how many times the word (along with other slurs) is reported to have been used.  And oh, the power of the word.  “What are we teaching our children?” the mother, who has a biracial child, asked the school board.  “We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means.”

Do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

The school system could have responded by following their recently adopted policy which asks that a “Request for Reconsideration of Learning Resources” form be submitted to the school and be considered through a process that would not require immediately pulling the books.  But our schools, like so many of our institutions, have so many policies and the heat of the moment is often quite hot.  So the books were pulled and in the week that followed before their reinstatement, Accomack County became an international symbol of censorship with its accompanying heaps of opprobrium.

There were upsides to the controversy.  People rallied on the courthouse lawn to protest.  When is the last time that people rallied in defense of literature?  Our local independent (and only) bookstore put Mockingbird & Finn on prominent display and sales spiked.  The owner was interviewed when TV crews came to town.  The local (and only) community theater sponsored a dramatic reading of the play based on Lee’s book.  All in all, it was a boost for the arts.

The question raised didn’t fall along simple lines, either.  How do we offer these books with their shocking words to our children?  What sort of context should we give?  Is the freedom of a library book shelf enough?  Or do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

What stuck in my craw, though, was the way my community was flattened by the media coverage.  It’s been happening all fall.  As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

So when the book controversy arose, we suddenly became another piece of evidence for the yawning divide between the enclaves of enlightenment and the continent of disgruntled whites malnourished by their steady diet of fake news.  Not that there isn’t a divide.  Lord knows, the distance from here to the Northeast Corridor seems to grow by the day.  Economic dislocation, declining educational opportunity, racial tension, opioid abuse – they all take their toll.  But we don’t get better by being exotic objects of remote observation.  Or by turning ourselves into such a thing.

Rural is plural.  That’s the thing I know from my life in the rural South.  I’ve had my run-ins with the kind of small-mindedness that lends itself to easy lampooning, but I’ve also been nurtured and challenged by big-hearted, poetic grandeur from the likes of English teachers, non-profit leaders, and country church choirs.  I grew up with and live with dreamers and everyday artists.

If we have a way forward beyond this time of crucial divide, it wofelix-serre-207685n’t be because certain regions hunkered down in their bubble and withstood the assaults coming from the other bubble.  The way forward has no red or blue hue.  It has the character of a river running right through the heart of a land on which unlikely companions seek a new day of freedom and adventure.  And on this journey we will share our best and worst selves, in language coarse and beautiful, with people who come from very different circumstances but with transcendent desires.  Someone should write a book about that.